PhD Student, Josh Timmermann, wins the first annual History Department Teaching Assistant Award
Josh Timmermann, History PhD student, was awarded the first annual History Department Teaching Assistant Award. This award recognizes exceptional achievement in tutorial facilitation, assignment marking, and course management. In celebration of his excellent work over the past years, Josh describes his role as a teacher assistant and his historical path and research with a short Q&A.
- To start off- what does a Teacher Assistant do? What are they responsible for and how do they work with the professor assigned to the class?
The answer to both questions is: it varies (somewhat) from course to course and professor to professor. And that’s just within UBC’s History department. I’ve chatted with T.A.s in other departments, and have been surprised to find that their experience of the job has been significantly different from mine.
That said, I think typically History T.A.s are expected to prepare for and lead weekly discussion sections (tutorials) with small-ish groups of students; keep track of attendance and participation for the students in their tutorials; grade assignments and exams; read all the course materials assigned to students; provide constructive feedback to students on their performance in the course; hold office hours to meet with students each week; and work together with the instructor and other T.A.s to maintain consistency across all sections, and contribute as needed in any other aspects of the course. Usually, this entails weekly course planning meetings, as well as regular, prompt communication by email, with the instructor, other T.A.s, and, of course, with the students.
More generally, T.A.s help, in large and small ways, to make the course successful, manageable, and as logistically smooth as possible for all involved. For relatively large first- or second-year-level classes, the small-group tutorial meetings are especially useful for students who may at first feel a bit overwhelmed or intimidated. These students may or may not have much of an opportunity to develop a substantial working relationship with the instructor of such a course, but they will receive more individualized attention from the T.A. leading their tutorial. This, in my view, is where a good, diligent T.A. can be most impactful and helpful in the long run.
- What UBC History classes have you assisted with? Do you have any favorite classes?
At UBC, I’ve T.A.’d for HIST 104 (Topics in World History: Global History of Disease) for Prof. Carla Nappi; HIST 101 (World History to Oceanic Contact) for Prof. Arlene Sindelar; HIST 220A (History of Europe) twice for Prof. Joy Dixon; HIST 104 (Topics in World History: The Global Gandhi) for Prof. Tara Mayer; and HIST 102 (World History from 1500 to the Twentieth Century) for Prof. Sebastian Prange. I also served as a Course Assistant for a couple classes at NYU, one on the history of modern espionage and one on the Second World War.
I realize it’s kind of a cop-out to say this, but I really don’t have a favorite among these. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all—and I’ve learned a ton! Aside from a week here or there, none of these courses have dovetailed much with my own area of research, which has actually been great. I’ve attended some amazing lectures, read terrific books that I probably wouldn’t have ever picked up otherwise, and learned new and interesting things right along with the students I was helping to teach. It has never not been fun.
- What is the best thing about being a T.A.? What is the most challenging?
The best thing about being a T.A. is partly all the benefits I’ve just described above, and partly the genuinely rewarding feeling that comes when it seems like I’ve actually made a significant difference in someone’s intellectual development and/or academic plans. I know how much impact the best teachers I’ve studied under have had on me, and to feel like I maybe had some small percentage of that impact on a student in one of my sections is a pretty extraordinary, gratifying thing.
The most challenging aspect of T.A.-ing is, I suppose, just time management—balancing one’s teaching duties and one’s grad-program expectations without shortchanging either, or just getting exhausted in the process. I think I’ve figured out more and more over time how best to sustain this balance, but it does take a certain stamina and effort, as well as a very supportive partner/family, which I fortunately have. (Of course, caffeine also really helps.)
- Any advice for future History T.A.s?
I would suggest, first, that they reflect on the particular qualities or pedagogical approaches they’ve most admired, or found most effective, in the best teachers (plural) they’ve had, and then try, in their own way, to creatively combine and pass on those qualities/approaches to the students they’re helping to teach.
Second—and maybe somewhat in contrast to what I’ve just suggested—I’d advise them to keep in mind just how different individual students and their ways of learning can be. It’s a cliché, but there’s just no one-size-fits-all approach. When you’re lecturing to 100-plus students (as many instructors are), it’s difficult if not impossible to try to adapt one’s teaching style to the learning styles of all those students. But in tutorial groups of ca. 15 students, this kind of adapting on the fly is much more possible. Talk to your students about what’s working for them and what isn’t. Just this kind of open communication can make a huge difference.
- What does the Teaching Assistant Award mean to you?
It really means a lot! It’s a great and unexpected honor, and it’s humbling. There are so many excellent T.A.s in our department!
- Why did you choose to enter a PhD in History? What was your academic history prior?
I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in History (specifically, the history of early medieval Europe) because, after completing honors and Master’s theses in the same research area, I did not feel at all tired or burnt out from doing that work. I wanted to learn more, to keep at it, and to push what I was doing further. I really enjoy what I’m working on, and I feel tremendously lucky that I’m able to do this!
Going back a little further, it was a matter of – just by chance – taking an undergraduate course (an elective that happened to fit well into my schedule that year) with Prof. Courtney Booker that set me on this path. I found the material he was teaching, and the various theoretical and methodological ways into it that he was describing, so fascinating. I was very quickly hooked, and I still am. Working more directly with Prof. Booker in the years since then has been a great experience. He’s a world-class teacher and supervisor. I’ve also benefitted much from good working relationships with numerous other professors in our History department (particularly those for whom I’ve worked as a T.A. or R.A.), with Prof. Mark Vessey in the English department, and with Prof. Richard Pollard (formerly of UBC, now at the Université du Québec à Montréal). It goes without saying that there are many brilliant people here, but there are also some exceptionally kind and generous scholars at UBC.
- In a nutshell, what is the historical research you are currently working on for your PhD?
My dissertation is concerned with the relationship between authority and temporality in the Carolingian era. Like most of the earlier work I’ve done, it centers on the influence, reception, and uses of the Latin Church Fathers (especially Augustine of Hippo) in the eighth and ninth centuries, during the so-called “Carolingian Renaissance.” But, for this project, I’m working across several different genres of early medieval writing (biblical commentaries, universal history, poetry, liturgical texts, etc.), and focusing on how Carolingian writers’ ideas about different moments and figures from the past interacted with their efforts at political, ecclesiastical, and social reform in the present. I’ve already written a couple chapters, and am now working on a third.
- Any ideas of what’s next?
This summer, I’ll be conducting research in Europe, examining early medieval manuscripts pertinent to this project, particularly Carolingian-era manuscripts containing Augustine’s The City of God, with contemporary marginal annotations. In terms of teaching duties, I expect that I’ll be serving as a T.A. again this fall. I also hope, at some point in the near future, to teach my own course. I have some ideas that I’ve been mulling over for a while, and I think it would be a lot of fun. From my experiences as a T.A. and working with some great professors, I feel well-prepared for that at this point.
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